In this new column, Sue Littleford looks at running an editorial business and how to make things more efficient and effective.
I could stop there, but we’re learning that the active use of checklists is a gamechanger in avoiding mistakes. The World Health Organization published the lifesaving (or merely inconvenience-saving) results of using checklists in 2008. In 2009, one of the drivers behind the checklist movement in medicine, Atul Gawande, published The Checklist Manifesto. Malcolm Gladwell is a fan. Also in 2009, Apollo astronauts called checklists their ‘fourth crewmember’. In 2019, Scotland reported that, since introducing checklists in 2008, surgical mortality rates had fallen by 37%. Checklists have been applied to air safety since the 1930s with great results.
Lives have been saved, money has been saved, time has been saved, reputations have been saved. What’s not to like?
Checklists help in three ways
- You need to think through your processes. Once you see them laid out in front of you, look for gaps and replication, and streamline your systems. That’s an immediate efficiency gain on every single job you do.
- They keep you focused. Don’t just glance down a checklist you’ve used a gazillion times and say to yourself, ‘Yeah, that looks OK, I’ve probably done everything’. Pay attention as you work through the list, and tick off each item deliberately. (Like exercise equipment, it doesn’t work if it stays in the box.)
- They reduce cognitive overload and anxiety. No need to rely on memory for all the steps, nor to worry you’ve missed one.
You could cover your processes for:
- taking in a new job and setting up your skeleton records
- communicating with others
- doing the initial clean-up
- converting US to UK English
- maintaining adherence to the client’s style
- maintaining consistency between chapters
- final checks and polishing
- handover and invoicing.
I’m sure you’ll think of more, relevant to your own practice.
Tailor your checklists to suit each client and their workflow, and each type of job. A proofreading checklist will look very different from a copyediting checklist, which will look very different from a manuscript critique checklist.
The cardinal error is to aim for one big checklist to cover everything. That’s a bad idea for two reasons:
- you simply can’t cover everything. The unexpected happens, the novel happens; and
- long checklists are confusing and difficult to follow. They become wearisome and self-defeating.
Instead, have a separate, short checklist for each part of a job.
What a checklist is not
It’s not a list of instructions. It doesn’t contain the detail of how you do your job. It doesn’t remove your autonomy (after all, it’s your checklist and you can change it). It’s also not your first attempt – you will find you need to refine it quite a bit, initially, as you figure out what you need to be reminded about to work well and consistently, as well as what you never forget, and therefore don’t need to include.
What a checklist is
It’s a set of reminders to do the stuff that would make you look stupid if you missed it, and to do the stuff you find you often forget, even though you know you should always do it. It’s your failsafe. And it’s a timesaver, as you work efficiently consistently.
What a good checklist is
It’s a practical, precise, brief and unambiguous reminder of the essential steps you need to take. It underlines your priorities, it stops you forgetting the important stuff in a moment of inattention and it makes you look good to your client or boss.
The big secret: checklists go out of date
I have a client that I’ve worked with for several years, starting out on books and then becoming the sole copyeditor for a journal. I could use the same checklist for both, right? Same publisher? Every time, I sighed heavily about bits of the checklist that were irrelevant, and about the extra bits I needed to remember to check, different for the journal and books. Then the publisher updated their style guide – about a fifth of the checklist was defunct.
Finally, I decided it was time to review the checklists I use most often. I realised that the core of my final-checks checklist had stayed essentially unchanged for about ten years. Ouch. What I’d needed to spell out for myself back then, now only needed a short reminder or could be omitted altogether.
I’d been dotting about the checklist because the flow was no longer logical now I’d matured as a copyeditor. If you’re jumping around your checklist, it’s no longer methodical; it’s an accident waiting to happen.
A checklist for checklists
1. Document your processes
- List out what you do for each stage of each type of job and for each client.
- Do you tackle these tasks in the most efficient and logical order? Shunt things around until the sequence is right.
2. Write a checklist that’s no more than one page long
- If it’s longer, ask yourself why. Are you trying to write an end-to-end checklist? Stop! Short checklists work better than long ones. Don’t include details.
- Write the checklist as bullet points, and use the empty checkbox symbol as the bullet (I like Wingdings character codes 113, 109 and 114. In Word, Insert tab > Symbols > Font > Wingdings > Character code).
- Or set out the checklist as a table. I do that if I have to change a bunch of chapters from US to UK English, for example, with the chapters as the rows and each feature that needs attention as the columns.
- Print out the checklist to use it. Physically tick things off as you complete each task. Your eye is less likely to betray you than working down an onscreen list, but if you’re really trying to reduce your use of paper, use highlighting or set up checkbox content controls in each list to ensure you miss nothing.
3. Set up each checklist as a template
- As you start each job, open the final-checks checklist you’ll be using and save it specifically for that job. As you work on the text, add to the checklist any tailored checks you need to make at the end of the work – author’s tics, layout issues, anything at all that will add to the accuracy of the finished job.
4. Keep the checklist fresh to your eyes
- It’s easy to stop paying attention to something you see all the time. To stop your checklists from becoming wallpaper, change the typeface every few uses.
5. Review your checklists
- How well did the job you just finished go?
- Were there any catches made at the last moment that could usefully be added to a checklist?
- How well did the checklists support each aspect of the job? Has this client changed their style or requirements?
- As you become more experienced, can your checklist be condensed?
- Have you started using a new tool that should be added to a checklist – a new macro, perhaps?
6. Review your processes
- You’re not standing still: with every job you gain experience and increase your competence. Review your processes periodically to check whether you’re being as efficient as you can – diarise reminders to do this, or maybe add it as the final item in the last checklist for any given job.
- Review constantly: be alert to your weak spots. What does your eye tend to glide past? What tasks do you like least and may be inclined to skip or rush? What feedback have clients given you?
Thoughtfully crafted and well-maintained checklists turn hindsight into foresight. And that’s invaluable.
Sue Littleford is the author of the CIEP guide Going Solo, now in its second edition. She went solo with her own freelance copyediting business, Apt Words, in March 2007 and specialises in scholarly humanities and social sciences. Before that, she had been the payroll manager for a major government department for some 14 years. Her whole career had been markedly numbers based – both in central government and in the private sector – even though she became the go-to wordsmith everywhere she worked. She eventually switched to words full-time, transferring her skills and experience to hone her business efficiency and effectiveness.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.